How strange it is to be wandering the beach in January without hat or gloves and not feel one ounce of regret.
Birding in winter is one of my favorite activities, although I recognize that it may seem to skeptics an exercise in futility and masochism. There is some truth to that, certainly. Winter birding is long underwear and two layers of gloves, a scarf wrapped thrice around your face and glasses fogging up the minute you lift your binoculars to your eyes. It is walking what feels like miles on the beach in the bitter wind and sleet, feeling your fingers stiffen as you attempt in vain to distinguish plastic bag from snowy owl…and then pure joy as you spy a flock of snow buntings whirling like flurries over the dunes. It is invigorating, but sometimes miserable. In short, it is not what we experienced last weekend.
When we got out of the car at Point Lookout on Sunday, we were met with 50-degree temperatures, a pleasant breeze, and rapidly melting snow. Point Lookout is located on the easternmost tip of Long Beach Barrier Island, just a stone’s throw across the inlet separating it from the more popular Jones Beach. The parking fees are steep in the summer, as are most town beaches to nonresidents, but in the winter the crowds dissipate and the sea ducks—and birders—arrive.
Sunday’s target bird: the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Named for their striking and somewhat gaudy plumage, harlequin ducks winter along the rocky Atlantic and Pacific shorelines and breed in cold, fast-moving streams in the northern U.S. and Canada. Their breeding range actually extends as far south as Wyoming, and we had hoped to see them in Yellowstone over the summer. But alas, we came up empty; plenty of bison, but no harlequins. So when I learned that they are fairly regular winter visitors at Jones Inlet, a mere 28 miles from our apartment, I knew where I wanted to go.
Three breakwater jetties jutting out from the shore form the centerpiece of Point Lookout, and it was there that I focused most of my attention. These jetties serve as both navigational guides for incoming ships and invaluable defenses against beach erosion. They also attract a wide variety of birds. Elizabeth found herself a rock to sit on, and while she sketched, I walked. And counted.
Three brant swimming from jetty to jetty. Two common loons stretching their wings further out to sea. Three scoters, two black and one surf.
One, two, three…fourteen long-tailed ducks diving just off the beach.
One Bonaparte’s gull, buoyed by the waves.
Four purple sandpipers skittering over the rocks.
And one abandoned Christmas tree, destined for the bottom of the sea.
Then, as I scanned the roiling surf, I noticed a small duck bobbing in and out of the waves, backlit against the afternoon sun. Not as large as a long-tailed duck, it was just as distinctive with its slate blue breast, chestnut sides, and daubs of white “paint” on its head. A harlequin drake! But despite what its scientific name might imply, this bird was clearly only hungry for dinner, not attention; as I fumbled for my camera, it dove beneath the waves and disappeared. A brief look, but a worthwhile one.